ETSU budget: Open letter to president calls for no cuts to adjunct faculty, levels criticisms

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – An “Open Letter to Preserve Instruction” that calls for more transparency and no adjunct faculty layoffs has drawn the signatures of hundreds of East Tennessee State University faculty, staff, alumni and others since its initial release Thursday.

The letter, addressed to President Brian Noland and interim Provost Wilsie Bishop, calls for four specific actions it says will represent ETSU leaders “honor(ing) its mission.” And it provides background suggesting some of the concerns addressed predate the COVID-19 budget crisis.

Noland spoke to News Channel 11 Monday night, three days after faculty senate vice president Ginni Blackhart, a psychology professor, did the same. Both seemed to tread some common ground, particularly regarding the need for shared sacrifices during the coming school year.

On other issues, the two didn’t see fully eye to eye. And with respect to a couple of allegations in the letter — the prospect of “mass layoffs” of adjunct faculty and a claim ETSU’s reserves have been diminished unnecessarily and left the university less prepared than it should be to combat the current budget challenges — Noland said they are factually incorrect.

“Wherever the rumor came from that we tapped into the general operating reserves is simply not true,” Noland said. ETSU’s reserves stood at nearly $30 million at the end of fiscal 2018 and had been rising annually for years, records show.

Noland said ETSU added about $1 million to them in fiscal 2019, but is likely to use some of that in the year ended June 30 to address shortfalls from refunds made out of the housing and food service auxiliary budgets.

Both Noland and Blackhart also acknowledged that some issues raised in the letter hearken back to the advent of decentralized budgeting, and that they primarily center around the College of Arts and Sciences.

Faculty, department chairs and others were told more than a month ago to prepare budget scenarios based on several different potential levels of cuts. At the time, ETSU leaders themselves had been told to prepare for cuts of up to 12 percent to the state allocation, which comprises about 35 percent of the general education revenues.

Instead, the state announced a flat budget for ETSU, which Noland shared news of June 26. A week later, the open letter criticized the administration for lacking transparency about the budget.

Blackhart echoed those views Friday.

“We want to know, how is this affecting various colleges, what is administration doing to weather the storm, what extra work are they doing, how is this affecting athletics,” Blackhart said.

ETSU professor Ginni Blackhart

“We want to know how it’s affecting everyone at the university and we want to be able to trust what the administrators tell us is true, because we keep receiving mixed messages and right now there’s just not trust in terms of faculty, the information we get from administration.”

Noland said he’s spent the past week combing through that and requested patience of those who think information is being withheld. He said a committee formed in June to complete various scenarios and look at post-COVID operational life hasn’t even submitted its report — and he said that committee is an attempt to continue a “shared governance” approach that includes faculty.

“People are speculating on something that’s in a report that hasn’t even been finished,” Noland said. “So if we could all just be patient with one another, and I anticipate having the report by next week…I’m going to put every number good, bad and ugly in front of the campus and we’ll start working through it.”

Noland acknowledged his own anxiousness during a budget season that’s still full of uncertainty, given the questions surrounding a return to campus in the fall with COVID-19 showing no signs of abating. He said he understood the concerns of faculty.

“Maybe I should have come out midway through and said ‘be patient,’ but we said that when we created the committee. Let the committee do its work and when it’s done we’ll sit down and have a conversation.”

“My hope is once we start to peel the layers of the onion back and people say, ‘okay, this makes sense,’ then maybe everyone’s angst will go down a little bit. But there’s not anything I can do to make all of the angst go away because there’s so much uncertainty about what the fall’s going to look like.”

The faculty research and mentoring question

Blackhart said numerous colleagues have expressed concerns about the long-term balance between teaching and research. Tenured and tenure-track faculty often have a “3/3” or “2/2” teaching load — two or three classes per semester — that allows them to focus on scholarly research and spend significant time mentoring students.

That balance is almost certain to shift for some this year, and faculty have been told to prepare to shoulder greater class loads as adjunct hiring will be among areas impacted if any cuts occur. Blackhart said she appreciates that ETSU hasn’t furloughed or laid off people as some universities have — a fact Noland pointed to more than once in his interview.

“We’re very fortunate that we’re not there yet but I’m certain that all universities and colleges are experiencing hardships right now and that may mean that faculty have to teach more for the time being,” Blackhart said.

“Faculty are willing to do what it takes over the next year or so to make sure that this university survives, but we want insurance that … these changes are not going to be permanent once the pandemic ends.”

ETSU President Brian Noland. Photo: ETSU via YouTube

Noland indirectly suggested that changes would, indeed, be temporary, but he wouldn’t commit to a full return to exactly what teaching and research mixes were when the spring 2020 semester began.

“I can state that from my perspective the things we’re working through are temporary, because once we get past COVID the world will go back to some form of whatever the new normal is, but we’re going to have to work department by department to answer that question,” Noland said.

Was the new normal already coming pre-COVID?

ETSU started a “decentralized” budget process about four years ago. Blackhart said the College of Arts and Sciences started out backfooted when its baseline budget didn’t include funds for adjunct faculty.

She said pressure has increased on the department since to cut costs, and that faculty lines haven’t been filled in some cases when professors have retired, quit or died. Still, the college has run large annual “deficits” compared to its allocated revenues in a budgeting system in which colleges and departments are expected to pay their way through tuition or other revenues.

“Part of the problem is that we don’t understand how the budget is allocated to the different colleges, but at least in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) we start out every year with a big budget deficit and that’s really problematic,” Blackhart said. “I think the way the decentralized budget model was implemented at ETSU is part of the larger problem, absolutely, and I think it needs to be addressed.”

Noland didn’t necessarily disagree, though he did say — without specifying colleges or departments — that ETSU has actually added faculty since 2012 even through relatively flat enrollment.

In terms of the decentralized budget, though, Noland said the advent of Tennessee Promise and the rise of high school students taking dual enrollment courses both have hit the CAS harder than others.

“When there’s less gen ed production at the university level then there’s less credit hour production in those departments that are built upon gen ed courses, which are primarily found in arts and sciences,” Noland said.

Throw in a freshman class of 1,700 last year, when the goal was 2,100, and the difficulty eliminating deficits is understandable, Noland said.

“So the pressure on arts and sciences has been much more pronounced than the pressure on a place like, let’s say clinical and rehab, which has a lot of graduate and professional programs, or nursing, which is bursting at the seams, or medicine or pharmacy.”

Noland said that reality doesn’t make him happy, but it’s largely beyond the university’s control. He said it was in a gen ed American government course that he found his academic passion, and that “our goal is to recruit as many students here and expose them to the beauty that happens in our classrooms.”

Blackhart said that “beauty” will be threatened if the change in teaching loads stays in place. And, she said, it could drive away faculty who came to ETSU for its “nice balance of teaching and research.”

“What we’re going to see is our teaching loads increase with no extra compensation, and for full time faculty that takes away from our time to do research and scholarly activity and to mentor students in those endeavors. That’s what we’re really concerned about is how long is this going to go on for, and if it goes on for three four five years we’re also worried that the administration may say, ‘well you’ve been doing it this long, let’s just keep it this way.’”

As for the adjunct question, Noland said when ETSU left the Tennessee Board of Regents system, colleges were asked to set their own adjunct pay rates and have been trying to reach “market rates.”

“The bulk of the adjunct pay issues reside in arts and sciences, and arts and sciences put in place a plan last year to begin to raise adjunct pay to get everything up to a level that’s much more equivalent to market,” he said.

But, he said, Blackhart’s point about the decentralized budget hitting the CAS hard in terms of hiring both full-time faculty and sufficient adjuncts is valid.

“The adjunct budget, that’s a fair comment,” he said.

“As we’ve run the campus for a long time that adjunct budget was controlled within the general administration of the university and when the budgets were decentralized the bulk of the adjuncts were in arts and sciences, so there was a disproportionate impact there.

“We’ve had a number of years to work through it, the dean has tried to nibble around the edges but we’ve not made the progress that we needed to. But that’s something we’ve got to work through. We didn’t get into this overnight, we’re not going to get out of it overnight, and we’re not going to try to solve it all at once.”

Can there be one sheet of music?

Noland said he hoped that with some of the clarity he expects to provide within the next couple of weeks, many of the letter’s signatories will find their way to a greater level of trust that the administration is trying to act with all the university sectors’ best interests in mind.

He said if the budget situation turns bad, which he doesn’t expect it to, higher paid staff will take pay cuts to preserve pay for lower-paid workers. He said he’d be the first to take a cut.

Noland also said that in the event of any university-wide cuts, administration will take a cut one percent higher than all other departments. He also defended his approach to employee pay, which he said has always focused on increasing equity between lower paid workers and higher paid ones.

For instance, if 2 percent raises are provided but an employee earns below a certain amount, his or her raise is set at a floor that equals more than a 2 percent raise. Noland said he’s also put in “ceilings” that sometimes meant higher-paid staff’s percentage raises were less than the norm “to drive it towards the middle.

“That’s the way I’ve always approached it. You drive it towards those who have the greatest need for them and their families.”

That is a much different take than the one in the open letter, which said that departments were told “they would lose half or all of their part-time instructor funding,” and that this and the lack of an early offer by high paid administrators to take pay cuts signaled that “it was the lowest-paid workers who were singled out as expendable.”

Noland said he hoped the situation wouldn’t devolve into one in which it was “full time faculty versus adjuncts, administration versus faculty, grounds and custodians against the counseling service area.”

“All of this is the work of a campus trying to work through the greatest period of uncertainty in modern history and I’m not surprised the faculty are unsettled,” he said. “I’m a little unsettled. Because we’re all trying to figure this out.”

For her part, Blackhart said she wanted to have hope that the university administration will address the concerns detailed in the letter and do so sincerely.

“I don’t think that our administrators are bad people and I do think that they want the best for ETSU and for the people at ETSU, so I am hopeful that they will listen to us and be more transparent.”

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